Tuesday, 1 December 2015

The Man in the High Castle


Around by Bank station in central London there's a golden grasshopper which flies over the top of the Royal Exchange. It's one of those things that I've 'always' known although probably most people going about their business in that part of London are blissfully unaware. I like to think it talks to the golden dragon that flies half way along Cheapside.

I mention it by way of a reference to 'The Grasshopper Lies Heavy' which is inscribed on the reels of film in Amazon's TV series reinterpretation of Philip K. Dick's novel 'The Man in the High Castle'.

I've found it compelling and disturbing viewing and it feels more like watching a series of movies, rather than a typical TV show.

It describes an oppressive parallel version of 1962 in which the Nazis and the Japanese have won World War II and taken over much of the United States with a buffer zone running along the Rocky mountains.

There's several main plot lines underpinned with the central one about a series of films depicting another version of the future. The future shown on the films appears to be reportage footage of the version of events that we, the audience, know.

The tv show depicts America under German and Japanese rule as consequence of losing World War II after the Germans dropped an H-Bomb on Washington. A subsequent US civil war led to their surrender to the Axis forces. The Germans have ruthlessly eradicated everyone they don't agree with including much of the African subcontinent. They've subjugated many to slavery whilst keeping a veneer of normality towards those they consider to be Arians.

The Japanese have established a strong-arm rule over the Americans on the West Coast, but are fearful of the larger German presence in the east and the more advanced industrialisation of the Germans with their Heisenberg bomb and rockets. It's another form of Cold War, with the Americans as losers squashed between two grimly dark superpowers.

The highly sought cans of film represent some form of resistance token - its not completely clear how they achieve this, but I'll live with the artifice.

They are a difference from the original Philip K. Dick novel, which used a book whose story about the grasshopper showed the possibilities of an alternative future and was itself rooted in aspects of I Ching. The reels of film present a more definitive view of the alternative future based upon the footage.

In the novel, many of the central characters had copies of the easier to reproduce (though illegal to own) book, whereas the rare film's content is only slowly released. Resistance people in the east and west are trying to track down these reels of film although most don't know what they contain.

As well as I Ching there's also a '12.5' in the mix. Is it a time check? No, it's that bit of Ecclesiastes that references fear of heights, terrors in the road, the blossom of an almond tree, a grasshopper dragging itself along and desire failing. Kind of gloomy references to the fleeting actions of man, and a proper theme in the Philip K. Dick novel.

I'll say that some of the novel's plot elements survive into this TV-show retelling, but although we see the Japanese Trade Minister uses his yarrow sticks to create hexagrams, the I Ching is not so overtly linked into the TV adaptation. If we see the Trade Minister making notes from his readings he draws three straight lines for the outer trigram (force and heaven), but we never see them combined to create a full hexagram and I Ching meaning. I guess it would all get rather complicated to explain in tv narrative? Having said that, I believe I glimpsed a few complete trigrams scattered on walls, so maybe there is some attempt to use them more indirectly?

That's where the novel and a tv show have to take different paths. The novel is altogether more cerebral than a popular tv show can present. I'll happily live with both.

There's been plenty of styling in the tv series. The chilling versions of the alternative reality are convincing. Some parts of this 1962 languish in the 1940s whilst monorails and supersonic jets appear like artefacts from Tomorrowland. There's rockets too, but they don't seem to go to Mars in the tv version. And no Elvis Presley, obviously. Some of the uses of German abbreviations and iconography looked wrong to me, but I guess that's movie shorthand at work.

There's extremely Bladerunner-esque scenes included, and other sections that reflect straightforward 40s noir. A whole character turns up looking like a hat-tip to the Cowboy in Mulholland Drive and there's a direct reference to a character named Deckard. That's just a smattering of the movie references to spot as the series runs along.

The lead characters are mainly strong, with some clever and sharp dialogue which I guess comes from the original novel. Occasionally it fades and I'm guessing that it is an effect of taking the original story and chopping it into episodes where there are occasional commercial needs (like well-timed cliffhangers).

There's also several different stories to watch. Want resistance stories? check. How about a spy? check. Art forgeries? check. A political power struggle? check. An assassination plot? check. And mainly it doesn't get too soapy and includes enough jump cuts around to keep up the interest without losing continuity. No mean feat with something so complex. Oh yes, in this tv version the main women get purposeful roles too.

The scripting works well and assists the creation of monsters like the family-man Obergruppenführer John Smith (played by Rufus Sewell) who demonstrates a particularly advanced form of passive aggressive behaviour. The normalisation of ruthless traits in him and others applied to this parallel world sends cold shivers down the spine. In many movie tropes there are parts where you'd be expected to feel sorry for him. Not me. And then when we meet his boss Oberst-Gruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich (one of the most despicable men in real modern history) we see the same type of behaviour again, only even more pronounced.

We also get various cultural clashes, some of which work and others seem odd. What does come through is a horrendous matter-of-factness to some the terrible practices which are allowed to persist in this new parallel world. On the other hand, I've worked with plenty of Germans and even amongst themselves there is still a kind of formality which didn't quite come through in some of the screenplay American interactions. I could partly understand if the Americans had won and the German culture was being subjugated, but this is the other way around yet we have American informality.

I suspect something similar would apply with the female American white face working at the Nippon Embassy - formality and prejudice which is somehow reduced in the television mix. I guess this is all very sensitive. Even Amazon's New York subway wraps advertising the show had to be pulled - I guess even this small taste of what it could be like is too much in real life.

But my detail comments are really me nit-picking.

Overall I've enjoyed and been terrified by this thought-provoking series - which I will watch again to extract more from some of the scenes. I'm intrigued at where it has left off too, because it seems to be going along a different path to my hazy recollection of the original novel. I like the idea that the tv show is now playing with the parallel futures and maybe introducing yet another one.

I've just ordered it the novel again on Kindle - as well as a separate PKD omnibus of short stories which was on sale for 47p.

Trailer below (Zoom to full screen - worth it)

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